By John Millington
It is not often that I find my anger affecting my professionalism.
After all as a journalist who is always looking for the big story you come across things that you don’t like.
However I couldn’t help feel a sense of irrefutable rage at the government’s announcement today that they were closing 27 out of 54 specialist Remploy factories.
I use the word specialist not in reference to the “disabled” status of the workers at the factories but with regard to the skill and dedication that these workers have shown, not only the course of earning their keep but with the way they conducted their campaign to keep their factories open.
The list of the 36 factories that are due to close are: Aberdare, Aberdeen, Abertillery, Acton, Ashington, Barking, Barrow, Birkenhead, Bolton, Bridgend, Bristol, Chesterfield, Cleator Moor, Croespenmaen, Edinburgh, Gateshead, Leeds, Leicester, Manchester, Merthyr Tydfil, Motherwell, Newcastle, North London, North Staffs, Oldham, Penzance, Pontefract, Poole, Preston, Southampton, Spennymoor, Springburn, Swansea, Wigan, Worksop and Wrexham.
The 9 of these factories to be subject to further consultation where they “may” be bought by a commercial enterprise are: Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Springburn, Barrow, Bristol, Chesterfield, Poole, Bridgend and Croespenmaen.
All the others are set to close by December this year.
In short, every area in Britain will be affected and up to 2000 disabled workers will be out of a job.
Having had the good fortune of meeting Remploy workers up and down the country, reporting on their protests outside Tory party conference in Birmingham, to their leadership of the May Day march through London, it is one of those stories that never leaves you.
They knew why they had been singled out to be closed – strong unionised workforce who ministers’ thought would be a soft target for the austerity agenda.
The performance in parliament of the so-called Minister for Disabled people Maria Miller showcased a perfect balance of ignorance of the issue and a malevolence towards vulnerable people
Her point of attack in defending the government decision was essentially two fold – economic and dividing disabled people.
She said that the £320m budget for disabled employment services could be spent more effectively adding that according to the Department for Work and Pensions, the factories lost £68.3m last year.
Remploy factories were established in 1945 to give employment opportunities to people with disabilities.
Enterprises range from furniture and packaging manufacturing to recycling electrical appliances with a range of skills utilised.
The closures follow recommendations by Disability Rights UK, which carried out a so-called independent review into the way the government spends its disability employment budget.
It recommended that the government should divert funding to support individuals, rather than subsidising factory businesses such as Remploy.
First of all Remploy is publicly funded. This means it does not have to make a profit in order to survive.
If everything in Britain was run for profit particularly in austerity times, there would be no infrastructure to speak of.
Without public funding there would be no energy infrastructure or railways.
Besides which, if a public company is making a loss then surely innovation and modernising production methods would create more useful and profitable output.
The failure of successive British governments to invest in research and technology has been highlighted as one of the key reasons why our manufacturing sector continues to stutter along in recession.
However given the recent financial crisis where we were presented with a fait accompli of having to bail out the banks or face economic Armageddon, no one asked at what cost.
It was a blank check, which we are now all being asked to pay for through cuts in pay and loss of public services.
The other argument Millar put forward was that the money saved by closing Remploy factories could be re-directed to more effectively help disabled people.
She also had a sideswipe at segregated employment as a relic of the past.
Regardless of some validity in the last point, Remploy workers that I spoke to never saw themselves as segregated.
By being in socially useful work they felt they served the local community and gained confidence and strength by their collective labours.
What anyone watching the proceedings in parliament today will have not failed to notice was the attempt to argue that the “limited” budget for disabled people would be better spent elsewhere.
This mythical “elsewhere” was never fully explained and amounts to putting workers from Remploy on the dole with next to no chance of ever getting a job again, never mind a job with inferior terms and conditions.
Several Labour MP’s including Ian Lavery and Peter Hain made passionate defences of the workers.
Contrast that to the body language of Tory frontbenchers who looked bored and disinterested, bemused at why some Labour members expressed such disdain at the decision.
Strike action against the closures which was planned in advance of the decision today will go ahead on the 19th and 26th July, GMB and Unite confirmed.
GMB national officer Phil Davies said: “The strikes will go ahead on 19th and 26th July as planned and should be a rallying point giving for each local community the opportunity to stand
behind these disabled workers who will be facing the scrap heap.”
Kevin Hepworth, Unite National Officer added: “Remploy workers will be taking strike action to defend their jobs as the axe is wielded by the government. By taking strike action they are trying to avoid their certain destiny of being chucked on the economic scrapheap.
“They deserve the support of all trade unionists and the public in Britain.”
The decision to close Remploy in the service of what many will see as a clearly cynical cuts agenda may be a step too far.
GMB Remploy convenor Les Dobbs told me prior to his speech on May Day that the trade union movement needed to push for a “general strike” to stop the closures and the austerity agenda in general.
Will Remploy be the spark that lights the fuse?